By MPP Toby Barrett
Winter is the time for farm meetings and whether it be pork, beef, hort or cash crop I have been hearing a common theme – the need for a Risk Management Program.
Farmers have been facing negative margins and are being forced to shut down after concluding the current suite of joint federal-provincial agriculture programs are flawed. They are simply unable to survive the ongoing decline in already paper-thin margins.
Recently, Ontario Federation of Agriculture Bette Jean Crews and Grains and Oilseeds Safety Net Chair Leo Guilbeault appeared in London before the Finance Committee to pitch the case for a Risk Management Program (RMP). RMP has given eligible farmers the ability to insure against market prices falling below production costs. With the initial three year program for cash-crop ending there’s a need for government to extend or make RMP a permanent plan – as well as create plans for pork, beef, veal, sheep, and horticultural products.
Over a three year pilot program, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculutre paid out only three per cent of what was budgeted and paid nothing in emergency ad hoc aid to grain and oilseed farmers. Ontario even made money on RMP in 2008, approximately $20 million, due to stable prices complemented by widespread farmer participation. Regrettably, last year $82 million was quietly reallocated from Business Risk Management Transfers back to Treasury Board, and used for priorities other than agriculture.
Regrettably, it is reported that former Ag. Minister Dombrowsky had refused to either extend the RMP pilot or make it permanent without a federal contribution – even though Ottawa had previously indicated they would not provide funding to such companion programs.
Guilbeault concluded that without an RMP extension, “the alternative is to go back to ad hoc payments funded for commodities and sectors that are in need….a return to stumbling from one crisis to another while the family farm continues to wither.”
We on the Finance Committee also heard reports on a plethora of other agricultural and rural issues – including the need for services and programs specifically designed for young farmers. Currently the average age for farmers is 53 years.
Given the potential for green energy to boost farm incomes, OFA is advocating for the development of a biomass industry to meet the 2014 deadline for the end of coal in producing electricity. Crews reported that, “biomass at Nanticoke, properly managed, can retain the value Ontario has in that seven billion dollar installation and in the $1.5 billion of power lines that connect it to the grid.” The Finance Committee also received the biomass proposal from locally-based South Coast Grow Me Green Energy Association.
During these meetings and hearings, farmers stressed other areas requiring the province’s attention to support a thriving agriculture sector. Compensation for wildlife damage to crops, provincial policy on paying farmers and landowners to provide ecological services, and ensuring value retention activities are supported through the “farm” property tax classification were among the priorities.
In addition to programs ensuring farmers sustainability, the support of infrastructure like feed mills, equipment dealerships, fertilizer suppliers, and a substantial portion of the trucking industry all translate into jobs for Ontario citizens.
Farmers need Ontario as much as Ontario needs farmers – after years of being largely ignored, its time for renewed focus and action to stabilize growth for both.